Song of the Shank

Song of the Shank

by Jeffery Renard Allen
Song of the Shank

Song of the Shank

by Jeffery Renard Allen


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A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era

At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere—inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots—who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom's boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976804
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 06/17/2014
Pages: 608
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of the novel Rails Under My Back, the story collection Holding Pattern, and two collections of poetry. Raised in Chicago and now living in New York, he teaches at Queens College and in the writing program at the New School.

Read an Excerpt

Song of the Shank

A Novel

By Jeffery Renard Allen


Copyright © 2014 Jeffery Renard Allen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-680-4


Traveling Underground(1866)

* * *

"Light is the exception."

SHE COMES OUT OF THE HOUSE AND SEES FRESH SHAPES IN the grass, a geometrical warning she does not understand. Blades mashed down under a foot, half-digested clots of earth where shoe heels have bitten in, mutilated worms spiking up through regurgitated blackness—piecemeal configurations, suggesting a man's shoe, two, large, like Tom's but not Tom's since Tom never wears shoes in the country. A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long lost—three years? four?—"Blind Tom"—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). She has grown accustomed to such intrusion, knows how to navigate around pointed questions and accusations. (Ignore the bell. Deny any insistent knock on the door and that voice on the other side, tongue and fist filled with demands. Speak calmly through the wood, polite but brief. Use any excuse to thwart their facts and assumptions. No matter what, don't open the door.) Yet no one has called upon them their entire summer here in the country, those many months up until now, summer's end. This can only mean that the journalists have changed their strategy, resorted to underhanded tactics and methods, sly games, snooping and spying, hoping to catch Tom (her) out in the open, guard down, unaware, a thought that eases her worry some until it strikes her that no newspaperman has ever come here before in all the years—four? five?—that they've had this summer home. Alarm breaks the surface of her body, astonished late afternoon skin, all the muscles waking up. Where is Tom? Someone has stolen him, taken him away from her at last. She calls out to him. Tom! Her voice trails off. She stands there, all eyes, peering into the distance, the limb-laced edge of the afternoon, seeing nothing except Nature, untamed land without visible limits. The sky arches cleanly overhead, day pouring out in brightness across the lawn, this glittering world, glareless comfort in the sole circle of shade formed by her straw hat. Tom! She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll's house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a stripped and worn tongue. Nevertheless, a (summer) home. To hold her and Tom. It stands isolate in a clearing surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods. Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face. The trees accept the invitation. Take two steps forward, light sparkling on every leaf. The nearest a dozen yards, a distance she knows by heart. Deep green with elusive shadings. Green holding her gaze. Green masking possible intruders (thieves). She must move, have a look around. No way out of it. Takes up a stout branch and holds it in front of her in defense, uselessly fierce. Even with her makeshift weapon she doubts her own capacities. Look at her tiny hands, her small frame, the heavy upholstery of her dress. But the light changes, seems to bend to the will of her instincts, lessening in intensity. (Swears she hears it buzz and snap.) She starts out through the grass—Tom keeps the lawn low and neat, never permitting the grass to rise higher than the ankles—her feet unexpectedly alert and flexible across the soft ground under her stabbing heels, no earthly sense of body. Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods? It is later than she realized, darkness slowly advancing through the trees, red light hemorrhaging out, a gentle radiance reddening her hair and hands. Still enough illumination for a more thorough search. No timepiece on her person—her heavy silver watch left behind on the bedroom bureau—but she's certain that it's already well past Tom's customary hour of return, sundown, when Tom grows hurried and fearful, quick to make it indoors, as if he knows that the encroaching dark seeks to swallow him up, dark skin, dark eyes.

Had she missed the signs earlier? What has she done the entire day other than get some shut-eye? (A catalog of absent hours.) Imagine a woman of a mere twenty-five years sleeping the day away. (She is the oldest twenty-five-year-old in the world.) After Tom quit the house, she spent the morning putting away the breakfast dishes, gathering up this and that, packing luggage, orbiting through a single constellation of activities—labor sets its own schedule and pace—only to return to her room and seat herself on the bed, shod feet planted against the floor, palms folded over knees, watching the minute lines of green veins flowing along the back of her hands, Eliza contemplating what else she might do about the estate, lost in meditation so that she would not have to think about returning to the city, a longing and a fear. She dreaded telling Tom that this would be their last week in the country but knowing from experience that she must tell him, slow and somber, letting the words take, upon his return to the house for lunch; only fair that she give him a full week to digest the news, vent his feelings—in whatever shape and form—and yield.

It takes considerable focus for her to summon up sufficient will and guilt to start out on a second search. Where should she begin? A thousand acres or more. Why not examine the adjoining structures—a toolshed, outhouse, and smokehouse lingering like afterthoughts behind the house, and a barn that looks exactly like the house, only in miniature, like some architect's model, early draft. She comes around the barn—the horse breathing behind the stall in hay-filled darkness, like a nervous actor waiting to take the stage—dress hem swaying against her ankles, only to realize that she has lost her straw hat. A brief survey pinpoints it a good distance away, nesting in a ten-foot-high branch. She starts for it—how will she reach that high?—when she feels a hand suddenly on her shoulder, Tom's warm hand—Miss Eliza?—turning her back toward the house, erasing (marking?) her body, her skin unnaturally pale despite a summer of steady exposure, his the darkest of browns. (His skin has a deeper appetite for light than most.) He has been having his fun with her, playing possum—he moves from tree to tree—his lips quivering with excitement, smiling white teeth popping out of pink mouth. Tom easy to spot really, rising well over six feet, his bulky torso looming insect-like, out of proportion to his head, arms, and legs—what the three years' absence from the stage has given him: weight; each month brings five pounds here, another five pounds there, symmetrical growth; somewhere the remembered slim figure of a boy now locked inside this seventeen-year-old (her estimation) portly body of a man—his clothes shoddy after hours of roughing it in the country—an agent of Nature—his white shirt green-and brown-smeared with bark and leaf stains.

He turns her fingers palm up like a palmist reading her hand. Pulls and leads her back to the front door of the house, bypassing the back entrance. Because his eyes are lidded over, all the energy in his face is in mouth and jaw. (Eyes are globes that map the feelings of the face.) He grasps the door handle as if it is a butterfly—delicately, barely touching it with his fingers—pushes the door open, and with a great show of strength turns to carry her inside, lifting her high above the ground, overestimating, throwing her face momentarily into his black cap of kinky hair. She hooks both arms around his thick neck, ringed with sweat, for the ride. Her body against his, she can feel his heart beating rapidly beneath his damp shirt. In fact, he's exhausted, struggling for breath. Something vulnerable about his features, a child's earnestness in his unknowing blind face, which gives to his obesity the suggestion of exposure rather than strength, more unaware flesh available for ambush. He takes time to wipe the bottom of his feet against the hemp doormat, one foot after the other, again and again, Eliza stilled in air. They flutter in. He almost drops her when he is setting her down. In the act of balancing she detects a faint scent in the room, the smell of tobacco. Someone has been in the house. Might still be in the house. She latches the door while Tom, sensing nothing, dizzy with the scent of pollen on his hands, grass on his feet, whistling—always a tune buried under his breath—hurries over to the piano—his feet slide like dry leaves over the carpeted floor—which squats like a large black toad in the sitting room. He takes a seat on the bench, removes his hankie from his back pocket, and cleans his face. Returns the hankie and brings his hands to the keyboard, his long fingers fanning out in excitement. Begins playing, his routine, discipline of pleasure. She sets off to inspect potential hiding places, twenty rooms of ample size, upper and lower, sets off, charged by fear she doesn't dare feel. How quietly she goes above the music rising up from downstairs; she feels lighthearted, competent, in a situation she knows she can handle. Could be a burglar sneaking through some unsuspecting person's house, increasingly confident and safe, her pendular breathing causing her to believe that she is only moments behind the intruder, just short of reckoning. A feeling quickly dispelled. Expecting everything, finding nothing. Looking through glass, she scans the jagged red-lit landscape impressed upon her mind with the sudden violence of a dream, all those yellows greens and browns separate parts of something, no longer the stable signs of summer sanctuary but disjointed hostile eruptions. She feels even more the need to leave the country at the earliest opportunity, tomorrow or the next day at the latest. Hard to imagine putting off their return to the city. Something real ahead.

Downstairs again, satisfied with her search—check the latches, front and back—safe and sound for now, she settles down on the settee, Tom twenty feet away from her at the piano, his face directed at the ceiling with the height-bound music, his hands chasing one another squirrel-like over the keyboard, Eliza turning speculations about the unknown intruder, mind spinning down to concentrate on her own slowing pulse, buried sense, the music relegated to the edge of awareness as she sits face to face with the fact of herself in this red-bright room filled with handsome well-crafted furniture and plump well-stitched upholstery, light making the objects look incongruous and absurd, lurching in and out of focus like this countryside that lurches in and out of her (their) life with the seasons. She wants to get back to the city, to her (their) apartment. A strong drive to part with this place for good, sever all seasonal ties. Easier now for her to entertain the thought of year-round residence in the city. Everything in between their apartment and this house a mistake. Torn (her) from the city each summer, they holiday here because there is little risk of entanglement, danger from others, the house far beyond the usual hunting grounds. Not that she is not trying to keep them hidden, keep Tom underground.

The facts trip her up. (What she does not say is clearest.) Forced to admit, the city is ideal for her, but not for Tom. Would she dare live here in the country? A city girl her entire life, she's not sure she's cut out for the countryside. All that harmony and light. Greenness pulling through the leaves. And flowers blooming out in the heavy humidity of the air, growing things too colorful to look at but nevertheless created beautiful for the delight of man. Scents and nectars and fruits that act as attractive guides for insects. She cannot get her mind around the idea of Nature, Barmecidal feast. Too much to take in. The promised primal power and purity of the elements—fresh air to clear the head, space for the body, rest and reclamation—rarefied to a degree that eludes her senses. There is nothing she desires to map, mount, or measure. So who she is in the country is unclear. Tom's safety is not reason enough to stay. End of story.

Or is it? The morality is ever changing. (At cross-purposes with herself.) She gets caught in all the choices. What's bound to happen? What might happen? What should happen? The questions cast long shadows that do not disappear.

She watches as if from a watery distance, a red-tinted vista, dusk besetting the edges of body and piano, profile opening, redefining the boundaries between ivory and skin, muscle and wood. Tom is signaling her, white and black flags moving under his brown fingers, as if he can sense her rigid unresponsiveness—is she holding her breath?—and is determined to break her out of it. This bounteous act, premature calls floating around her. She casts out—what precedes what—to meet them, drawing to herself many points of sound, many others lost, breath held to slow down the reeling in, that which is brought back heard singly (as should be?). What a pleasant feeling to find (sense) her person in an upright position, rebodied, flesh again in a distinct sort of way, no longer just a sleeping form, but a working one, thinking, planning, and organizing, fields clearing in her mind. The sound growing there says too much. She feels it—pinching the keys—in her mouth, teeth, tongue, and gums. She wants to curtail it. Can't. Her mood rising with each minute. Uplifted. All this music he gives only to her. She's no expert, but he seems to play better than ever, no part of the force lost, his three-year hiatus from the stage hurting him none. He could step back under the spotlight tomorrow and simply pick up where he left off and then some, his past performance mere dress rehearsal for his prime. All that music still, "Blind Tom" preserved. Words prepared, she wants to tell him right then that they will be leaving tomorrow, but the music chases the idea of departure from her head for the moment. (After dinner, tell him after dinner.)

The splintered edges of a voice. Is Tom singing? No. Speaking her name—Miss Eliza—clearly and cleanly in a way pleasant to hear, the play of a smile around his mouth.

Yes, Tom?

Lait, please.

She gets up from the settee to honor his request, walks down the long tunnel of hall to the kitchen filled with the odor of meat—blood congealed in the cracks and the lined spaces where the floor joins—music following her. Pulls the pantry open (hinges creaking) and enters the cool sound-muffled dark. Bends at the waist and lets her hands search through black air for the bottle of milk kept curdle-free in a bucket of water.

In the light, she fills a slender cylindrical glass to the high rim and makes her return—music drawing her back—steady hand, careful of tilts and spills. But Tom, planted on his bench, fingers skipping like grasshoppers across the keys, doesn't seem to notice her standing there right next to him. She nudges his shoulder with the glass, and his right hand springs up to seize it while the left continues to pattern chords, arpeggios, bass lines. He throws his head back and takes a deep draft, throat working, until the glass is empty. Pivots his face ninety degrees in her direction and holds the glass—face, neck, Adam's apple—out toward her at the end of his fully extended arm. Miss Eliza, he says. Lait, please. She knows where this is headed, her feet fated to flux between kitchen and tongue. (Been there.) Might as well bring the whole bottle and preempt any need for orbiting.

So why doesn't she? He takes more time with the second glass, drinking and blowing melodies into the liquid at the same time. Drains the third—see, you should have brought the bottle, or made a fuss—then bites the rim in place between his teeth, the glass attached to his face like a transparent beak, both hands free to roam over the keyboard. Tom drinking milk, making an event of it.


Excerpted from Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen. Copyright © 2014 Jeffery Renard Allen. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Traveling Underground (1866), 3,
Moving House: Three Views of the City (1867), 99,
Bird That Never Alights on the Trees (1849–1856), 157,
Rain Storm (1854–1856), 217,
Voice of the Waves (1856–1862), 349,
The Celebration of the Living Who Reflect upon the Dead (1867), 365,
Gold and Rose (1868–1869), 481,
Song of the Shank (1869), 503,
Underground (Return) (1869), 541,

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